Colorado’s ranchers could face financial losses of $10 million or more because of last month’s winter storms.
Because snow drifts are still hindering efforts to locate all the animals, estimates are all that is available, said Terry Frankhaufer, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. But, so far, losses are expected to remain well below the 30,000 head of cattle lost during the 1997 blizzard.
“It’s still early,” Frankhaufer said. “With that volume of snow, people are still trying to dig their way to the livestock — or at least the last place they knew they were located. We think about 75 percent of the livestock have been located.”
Firm numbers show that 8,000 cattle died from starvation and exposure following back-to-back snowstorms in December. With about 25 percent of the animals still unaccounted for, Frankhaufer said the numbers could reach as high as 15,000.
“These numbers just aren’t feedlots,” he said. “But we’re trying to find free-range cattle as well. It’s going to be devastating for people in that area.”
Some loss estimates are lower than the Cattlemen’s Association. Bill Hamrick, director of the Colorado Livestock Association, is hoping for a loss of about 5,000 head.
“I’ve heard numbers like 40,000, but I don’t think that will be the case,” he said. “Of course, that could be just wishful thinking on my part.”
But the financial costs could go higher — and some of the effects could last for years, said James Pritchett, farm management specialist in the agriculture department at Colorado State University.
“If they have lost a significant portion of their herd, then they’ve lost years of genetics, they won’t be able to find a source easily,” he said. “And it will represent a large acquisition — to replace that lost capital of the herd, when you lose the genetics.”
Hamrick said that response to the plight of cattle, stuck in snow drifts as high as nine feet on Colorado’s eastern plains, was much quicker during the December blizzards. The Colorado National Guard dropped hay via helicopters, and snowmobiles and other methods were used to reach the cows.
“We’ve made some great strides,” he said. “We’re hopeful that when all is said and done, the numbers of death loss won’t be as large.”
Between 70 and 80 tons of hay — about 3,000 bales — were dropped on the plains, the state Division of Emergency Management said.
Cattle were not out in large grazing areas during the blizzard, they were grazing much closer to ranchers’ headquarters, Hamrick said. That fact alone should lower the losses suffered by Colorado ranchers.
While El Paso County does not have large herds of cows, some local ranchers asked for help getting feed to their animals. But not all herds were affected by the winter weather.
Peter Popp, owner of Black Forest Bison, said his livestock fared well during the storms.
“Bison are great for this kind of weather,” he said. “We didn’t loose any. Bison will dig through three, four feet of snow to get to the grass; they’ll eat the snow for water. My biggest problem — the snow is so deep that the bison are walking over the fences.”
Popp has spent the past few weeks shoveling snow around fences to keep his bison out of a hay pile, and putting up temporary fences on top of the snow to corral the animals.
“We haven’t had any trouble, really,” he said. “Although I’ve been out in the moonlight with snowshoes on, putting up fences to keep them off the highway. I have friends who are really struggling, though.”
The fences are little more than clothes line strung between poles, but they work for bison — when they wouldn’t work for cows, Popp said.
“We call it the Indian rope trick,” he said. “They’ll walk right up to it, but not try to break through it.”
Ranchers are hoping for federal help in dealing with their losses, Frankhaufer said.
“The state’s been very generous,” he said. “Funds are out there to help with rescue and recovery of livestock. There’s been a strong local and state effort — but at this point, a lot of it is rancher helping rancher.”
U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard and state Sen. Marilyn Musgrave introduced legislation last week that would provide help for producers who suffered livestock losses. The legislation follows a presidential disaster declaration, which includes many counties hit hard by the blizzards — but left out El Paso County.
“Track two is providing the assistance to those people,” Allard said, “people who face the loss of their income source and livelihood — to get back on their feet.”
Getting back on their feet could be hindered by the skyrocketing cost of hay. In some places the price of hay has risen from $150 per ton to $210 per ton, agriculture officials say. Cattle ranchers could deplete their reserves before the end of the winter.
“Hay has already had a very strong market this year,” Pritchett said. “And now with prices going very high, it could be a significant burden to replace those feed stocks.”
It also is the time of year when ranchers typically pay on loans, he said. Ranchers who cannot borrow more money to offset higher hay costs could end up selling their cows.
Cattle prices cycle over 12 to 14 years, based on beef prices, Pritchett said. When prices are low, ranchers sell fewer cows until they rebound. The beef industry is currently experiencing an historical high-price cycle.
“Calf producers have an especially strong market,” he said. “And this loss will make prices in the local market higher. But I don’t expect it to affect beef prices nationwide. Just as the drought has had little effect on national beef prices, this regional event won’t either.”